A succession of winter storms proved the wisdom of recent upgrades in the wastewater treatment system for Payson — but underscored the urgency of additional changes.
The heavy rainstorms saturated soils throughout Payson, with much of the water seeping into the buried, clay sewage pipes — and rushing down the American Gulch toward Northern Gila County Sanitary District’s treatment facilities, the board learned at a recent meeting.
The district processed some 56 million gallons through its plant in January, most of it storm water rather than sewage generated by homes and businesses. That added up to an average daily flow of 4.4 million gallons daily — about three times normal.
The district has made improvements in its system in the past couple of years to allow it to let such peak flows back up in holding tanks until it can go through the series of processing and storage tanks that allow bacteria to convert the sewage into harmless sludge that’s useable as fertilizer.
Without those improvements, the district would have had to bypass at least some of those peak flows around the treatment facilities. However, during another portion of the meeting the board learned that the district must ultimately increase capacity to handle storm water flows of up to 12 million gallons a day.
The monthly operations report revealed that the district in January produced 230 tons of treated sludge, up 60 tons from December. The district also produced 4.1 million gallons of treated wastewater for irrigation, mostly on the Chaparral Pines Golf Course. The district also put 20 million gallons of treated wastewater into Green Valley Park lakes.
The board also learned that the Sanitary District remains in enviable financial condition.
The district has about $44 million in assets — but only about $800,000 in debt.
The assets include a bank account with $15.3 million dollars — most of it earmarked to build new tanks and pipes that will double the system’s peak capacity. Currently the district treats about 1.2 million gallons of wastewater on an average day, although it can handle up to 2.2 million. However, during peak periods the district has several times exceeded 80 percent of its full capacity, triggering state rules that require an expansion.
The cash reserves include $6.5 million in a Cash Facility Improvement Fund — accumulated originally from impact fees on new homes and businesses, but lately augmented by property taxes.
The district gets about $120 annually for each home from property taxes — plus about $20-a-month for service. The district charges an impact fee of about $5,400 per house for a connection to the system and much more for businesses, based on their water use.
Those fees provoked the first contested sanitary board election in years, with a slate of challengers insisting that the district has plenty of money and that maintaining such high impact fees discouraged growth in a once-bustling community where the construction industry has been hibernating for the past four years.
The cash accounts also include about $4.8 million in a building fund accumulated from property taxes.
Various other accounts bring the cash total to $15.3 million, which will pay for the proposed expansion and other upgrades. The district is moving ahead with the first, $9 million phase of an expansion that over a period of years will increase the peak capacity for wastewater to 3.5 million gallons daily and for storm water to 12 million gallons a day.
The board received some other bits of good news during the financial and operations report.
For starters, the district continues to recover money it lost when an investment pool managed by Lehman Brothers collapsed five years ago during the financial meltdown. The district thought the brokerage firm had invested the money in a low-risk fund. However, the investment pool turned out to include many “toxic assets” — like bundles of mortgages to people with not enough income and little security buying properties whose value plunged when the market collapsed. The sanitary district lost about $300,000 when the fund collapsed.
The Arizona State Treasurer participated in a lawsuit against the brokerage house on the grounds that the brokerage lied about the investments. So far, the district has recovered about half the money it lost.
The district also received other encouraging budget news with the presentation of the balance sheet for the first six months of the fiscal year, which ended in December.
The budget called for $1.4 million in revenue for that period. The district actually collected $76,000 more than it forecast.
Just the opposite took place when it came to tallying up expenses.
The district’s adopted budget anticipated $356,000 in expenses for the six months ending in December. The actual expenses came in about $17,000 under budget.
However, that gap between revenue and expenses actually also figured in the election. The board challengers said the district routinely takes in more than it spends to provide service — one more argument in favor of lowering impact fees.